As 2013 draws to a close, we’re looking forward to a new year and a raft of new technical writing projects. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been thrilled to work with new clients and secure new contracts for the year ahead.

As a company, Red Robot Media prides itself on keeping everything in-house. All of our content is produced by two people. That means we’re busy, and we need to minimise admin if we can.

Zapier IFTTTI’ve previously posted about Buffer, dlvr.it and IFTTT. These services enable the automation of certain tasks on social media, and/or integrate cloud and social media websites with each other. We still use IFTTT and Buffer on a daily basis, but I’m always looking for new cloud tools. And with an increasing admin workload, I thought it was a good time to revisit the topic of automation.

This time, we’ll look at the new, improved Zapier and see whether its revamped service could convince us to switch our automation from IFTTT.

What Is Zapier?

Zapier is a service that links two unrelated services together. I recently wrote an article for OnlineBackupReviews that describes the general idea in more detail.

Basically, when something happens on the first service, Zapier notices it and causes the second service to respond. In Zapier’s language, this is a ‘zap’.

The idea of automation started with Yahoo! Pipes, a very powerful way to create auto-firing workflows. Unfortunately, Pipes was not user-friendly. I once created a Pipe that retweeted mentions of certain hashtags on Twitter for a client. It took a long time to make; it broke often.

IFTTT and Zapier have run with the idea and turned it into an accessible, reliable tool for business and personal use, encompassing all kinds of services from a massive range of vendors in a far more simple interface than Pipes.

What’s New in Zapier?

Zapier’s getting quite a bit of attention after it relaunched earlier this week. It has increased the number of services it can ‘talk’ to, bringing the total to 250. In contrast, IFTTT can interact with 75. (Then again, IFTTT is free; Zapier is not, although the company says it will extend the free trial for any user that needs more time to evaluate it; this seems pretty fair.)

I was interested in revisiting Zapier this week because it integrates with some of the more obscure SaaS tools we use as a business. As we get busier, we have less time to manually control everything. We manage projects in TeamworkPM, and we use (or have used) Xero, FreshBooks and FreeAgent for accounting. In terms of cloud storage, we use Copy, Dropbox and Google Drive. For e-signatures, we use Inkdit.

From a quick scan of Zapier, I can see that it supports 6 out of 8 of the cloud tools I use on a daily basis. That’s not bad.

Let’s look at a couple of practical examples.

How Zapier Is Used In Practice

TeamworkPM and FreeAgent in Zapier

Before we look at use cases, I should stress that Zapier needs something to happen before it can react. It can’t simply transfer data from one service to another passively. It needs that ‘zap’ to trigger it.

For example, we’re moving from Xero to FreeAgent right now, but Zapier can’t really help us there. That’s not what it does. But if we added a new client to our FreeAgent account, it could help.

So. Let’s say we have a new client and we need to sync activity in FreeAgent to/ from activity in TeamworkPM. Zapier can perform 45 different automated tasks between these two services.

I know because I’ve checked via the Explore screen in Zapier, which looks like the screenshot on the right.

Remember: all of these are possible zaps; not all of them are useful. I can’t think of a situation where you’d want to create a contact in TeamworkPM every time you create an invoice in FreeAgent, for example. But creating a contact in TeamworkPM from a contact in FreeAgent could be very useful indeed.

Let’s look at another example.

We’re currently using Typeform to collect information about new clients, and to collect testimonials from existing clients. I noticed that Typeform is one of the services included with Zapier, but I’m not sure how we could use it yet.

Typeform, TeamworkPM and ZapierAgain, the Explore screen offers some suggestions.

Looking at the list of possible options, it seems we can have Typeform create a new task every time someone completes a form submission, so I’d be reminded to add their testimonial to our portfolio page. That’s very handy.

(Incidentally, you can also build triggers using drop-down lists. For example, here, my trigger would copy invoices from FreeAgent to SugarSync. I find this a more intuitive way to create them.)

Conclusions: Is Zapier Worth the Money?

The most important differences between IFTTT and Zapier are cost and scope.

IFTTT is free and is more limited in scope; this is especially true since Zapier more than doubled its services this week.

But IFTTT is free, and for a casual user, it will satisfy; it does cover most commonly-used services. The user interfaces are slightly different, but that’s just a matter of taste.

One key difference is that IFTTT allows one account of each type. So: one Twitter account, one Dropbox account, and so on. With IFTTT you can’t have one RSS feed posting to your business Twitter feed and one to your personal feed. You’d have to have two IFTTT accounts to achieve this, and that’s where I start to lose interest, because the amount of admin and hassle starts to increase again.

Zapier example

As for Zapier, it is clearly being developed and improved all the time and I love the new layout. There are a few aspects of the service that I’d like to see sharpened up, though.

  • Not all of the icons are self-explanatory, and the text on the zap description sometimes isn’t that helpful. I’d like some clues as to what a service is (perhaps with a rollover) so I can sign up if I’d like to make use of it.
  • Sometimes the zap descriptions (which are – I presume – automatically compiled), the standard of English is poor. Combining all of these possibilities into meaningful sentences is a phenomenal challenge, but this is clearly something that needs work.
  • Some combinations appear to be listed twice with slightly different names.
  • The pricing is based on ‘tasks’ and ‘zaps’. What? Exactly. The pricing table doesn’t mean a lot until you start using the service and understand the resources you’re going to be using yourself.

Note that some services are marked ‘Premium’ on Zapier, too. You can use them in your trial, but then you’ll be locked out until you pay. Amazon’s cloud storage services (like S3 and SES) are considered Premium targets, as are Evernote Business, HubSpot, Magento, PayPal and Xero.

Also, on the free account, zaps don’t run that often.

Personally, I can see more potential in Zapier than IFTTT now, since automation services are really only as strong as the services they integrate with. And is it worth paying for? I’d say yes. OK, so Zapier isn’t cheap, but it’s powerful, and you can bag referral bonuses to make your move from IFTTT a little less painful on the wallet.

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Claire Broadley

Technical writer, blogger, and editor at Red Robot Media
Claire Broadley is a freelance technical blogger for Red Robot Media. She works on technical and business blogs. If you'd like Claire to write for you, contact Red Robot Media now.